Welcome to the tumble drier, Mr Mantashe, it’s long overdue
While there are no early solutions in sight to our intensely painful rolling blackouts, it appears there is a major political dispute taking place both within government and within the ANC. It is also becoming clear that Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe is coming under serious pressure, even though he is not yet in control of Eskom.
It appears the only response Gwede Mantashe has to the pressure he is experiencing is to try to distract from the real problem, which is the technical issue that Eskom is not able to provide enough electricity, and government policy’s failure to allow the private sector to make up the shortfall in time. This political dispute is likely to get even more heated, and no amount of the ANC Chair’s spinning will be able to tamp it down.
On Saturday, News24 quoted Mantashe telling delegates at the Free State ANC’s conference:
“…within the ANC there is a new debate that says energy and mining must be split. They will split energy from my department [of mineral resources and energy] then say they are taking Eskom to energy in terms of the resolution from the conference of the ANC”.
This appeared to be bolstered by reporting in City Press that those close to President Cyril Ramaphosa were planning to move him away from Energy, with one source quoted as saying his reign at the department has been “disastrous”.
Coming so soon after the ANC’s conference decision that SOEs be moved to their line departments (and thus Eskom would move to Energy) this is the first sign that Mantashe may not get control over Eskom at all.
This is likely to disappoint him.
Despite not having political authority over Eskom, Mantashe has made many comments about Eskom and rolling blackouts in the past. These included his famous quote that Stage 6 was “akin to agitating for the overthrow of the state” and appears to have “inspired” the resignation of Eskom CEO André de Ruyter.
And yet, while he has made those attacks on Eskom, he has also conveniently used the fact that he does not have direct control over Eskom to turn down interview requests. At the same time, in other interviews he has granted he has continued to lambast the beleaguered giant.
Professor Anton Eberhard has said that Mantashe told him directly he would blame current Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan when rolling blackouts happened, which points to a lack of care about… well, anything other than his own personal interests.
Up until now, it appears Mantashe has had the luxury of deciding who should be blamed for rolling blackouts, and when. Despite that, over the last few weeks, it appears that for the middle classes and the commentariat, he is already being directly blamed, as ordinary people have become wearingly familiar with the technicalities of energy policy.
People around the country will now also be familiar with solar panels on the roofs of homes and businesses, the most simple demonstration that renewable energy can work really well.
If Mantashe does now take over Energy and Eskom, there will simply be nowhere for him to hide, and the sense that it was he who is responsible for our plight will continue to grow.
There are also clear signs that Mantashe does not have the answers to the problem of rolling blackouts, and when confronted on it, he attempts to distract from the issue.
For example, he has consistently claimed that he is the victim of an attack by “liberals” over energy policy. On Saturday, he was quoted as saying the person who his opponents wanted to take over from him at Energy would be a “greenie” who would be pro-renewable energy.
The word “liberal” can mean different things in different places. In the US it can be used by those on the Right as a way of describing those on the Left. But in our politics, it is normally used by those who believe themselves to be on the Left to describe those who they believe are on the Right. (Confusing, right?)
Here, it is not entirely clear why Mantashe has chosen this phrase, or used it so consistently in recent days. That said, there is certainly an element of trying to brand those attacking him, to ascribe a political motive or ideology to their view.
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In the meantime, it appears the only possible solution Mantashe mentions for our power problems is in fact a contract with Karpowerships.
But there are many issues around this proposed policy choice.
In an interview with News24 he says that when it comes to the possibility of using that company to provide power it may be expensive, but that it is much more expensive to continue with rolling blackouts, considering the damage it does to our economy.
However, this misses the point that the contract with Karpowerships would be for 20 years, as has been pointed out many times. It would lead to a situation where after all of that money had been spent, there would be no infrastructure to show for it; the ships would simply pack up and leave.
Read on Daily Maverick: More late changes to gas explosion and noise studies as Karpowership enters final lap
In the meantime, as those who favour renewables argue, it would be much cheaper to simply add a lot more of that capacity to the grid, in particular because some of it can be built within just two years.
Mantashe’s admission that some in the ANC want to prevent him from taking over Eskom is an indicator of the pressure he is experiencing. While Mantashe is famous for getting his way over policy and politics, and beating opponents, this may be too big a fight, even for someone as pugnacious as he.
Part of it may be because Pravin Gordhan, who currently has responsibility for Eskom, is a political fighter of impressive dexterity himself. His track record as Finance Minister during the Zuma era is testimony to that. But rather than fight in public, Gordhan tends to operate behind the scenes.
While it may look like a straight fight around personalities, the real issue must surely be the direction of electricity policy, and South Africa: whether we will continue our coal dependence or will move more quickly to renewables.
Mantashe has created the strong perception that he is in favour of coal, despite what appear to be clear ANC decisions about the importance of mitigating climate change. This may weaken him in the debates around whether he should be allowed to take over Eskom.
The desperation around this issue could force Ramaphosa to finally take some public action. As he is due to announce a reshuffle soon, retaining Mantashe in the Energy portfolio will lead to a backlash, against Ramaphosa personally and the ANC in general, at a time when the party can ill afford to lose any votes ahead of next year’s elections.
That said, it is not clear from the group of people available to Ramaphosa who could take over the position and make a big difference. The problem of rolling blackouts is so massive and difficult that there are no quick and easy solutions. As Ramaphosa can only pick people who are currently Members of Parliament (although the Constitution does allow him to select two members of Cabinet who are not MPs), his hands are restricted if not fully tied.
It should also be remembered that Mantashe, and the ANC, are not the only people in our society with no hard and fast solutions to rolling blackouts, and who attempt to distract from the real, hard, technical issues.
The DA has launched an “urgent” court application to overturn Nersa’s decision to increase power prices by 18% this year and 12% next year.
While this may win some headlines, the prospects of success are small. It is clear that Eskom needs the money and the increase decision is likely to be judged as legally rational.
Meanwhile, the organisation #NotInMyName held a protest against that same increase in Tshwane last week. While this may win it support, this group has its own track record.
It has received money from the National Lottery Commission, and was part of a group of organisations that demonstrated their support for the former board of the NLC. This is the board implicated in a massive scandal that saw millions, perhaps more, being stolen.
This comes amid a backdrop of claims that there should be a “national day of action” against rolling blackouts. But this, again, underscores the fact that political action does not result in changes to the laws of physics.
Rather, the problems of rolling blackouts are all technical. They are about power generation, economics, financing and the difficulties of distribution.
The solutions to our problems can be only technical in nature. They also require people who understand them, and make the correct technical decisions to implement them. Certainly not the politicians. DM